Winter vacay is over — it’s time to work off that hard-earned hay belly. Lisa Lach explains, “To get your horse in shape, you can work harder but you should also work smarter.”
Top: Stock photo/Creative Commons License
As the winter from you-know-where wraps up (sort of) it is a truth universally acknowledged that most horses – and humans – are woefully out of shape. Time to create a spring conditioning program! Whether you’re headed to the show ring or hitting the trails this summer, you need to prepare your horse properly so that you can both be happy and healthy.
It is easy to think of a “conditioning program” as riding around at a faster gait to make your horse work up a sweat. That may have a place in your training program, but just trotting around the arena (or, when the weather is finally nice, out on the trails) might not be working to your best advantage. To get your horse in shape, you can work harder but you should also work smarter.
There are two related questions that you should ask yourself during each part of your conditioning program: “why?” and “what do I want to accomplish?” These may seem like pretty much the same question, but using them together helps you clarify your intent. Understanding the purpose of each exercise will help you get the most out of each session.
Let’s look at some examples to clarify the difference between “why” and “what do I want to accomplish.”
Situation #1: You decide to walk in the arena for 20 minutes.
Why? Because my horse is coming off an injury and is only able to be ridden walk right now.
Great. Does this mean that you will let your horse mosey on a loose rein? No. Mastering the slow gait is the basis for anything in the faster gaits. You’re working at the canter at the walk. You should be feeling your horse’s feet, expecting a forward and engaged movement. He should be responsive and between your aids. If you are truly riding and your horse is truly listening, then you should be able to turn, slow down, speed up or stop, all with very little effort. It only makes sense that if this is true at the walk, then it will be true to some extent at the trot and canter. This is a skill and a relationship that is necessary for any kind of riding.
What do I want to accomplish? A soft, responsive horse that is in tune with my aids; an engaged hind end and purposeful walk to ensure the proper muscles and way of going are developed.
Situation #2: You decide to trot for 20 minutes.
Why? Because I am building up my horse’s stamina.
Cool. Are you going to race around the arena for 20 minutes, strung out and hollow-backed? Probably not. In many real-world situations, you will find that you need to trot more slowly or more quickly. Practice your speeds within the gait. Trot slowly. Extend the trot. Perfect your working trot. How many distinct speeds can you differentiate? How fast can your horse trot? How slowly can he go? Knowing the answers to these questions will serve you well…like when the answer to the “why?” is because my horse is has succumbed to spring fever and if he doesn’t work off some steam, his head might pop off his body. Working with speeds within the gait can help your horse’s mind, too. They learn that it’s okay to move their feet and work off the energy – but they still need to listen and respond to their rider’s aids.
What do I want to accomplish? Build up my horse’s stamina, control speeds within the gait to develop more sensitivity to aids and condition the mind as well as the body so that we are prepared for any situations that may arise in more high-pressure situations.
Without a clear intent, it’s hard to make any progress. Sure, your horse might lose the hay-belly, but without thoughtful reflection on why you are doing what you’re doing, you won’t make it much farther down the path to great horsemanship.
I am currently working with a horse named Poe. He has been sitting in the pasture for months. With no one available to work him, he is not in the best shape, mentally or physically. He has talent as a dressage prospect, but he needs some attention, work and polish. Enter the Intentional Spring Conditioning Program.
Conditioning Poe: Phase 1
The first phase of conditioning Poe is about muscle building and consistency.
What do we want to accomplish?
• Build muscle in the right places, specifically through his topline
• Achieve consistency and relaxation in the walk, trot and canter
• So that Poe can become balanced and supple while carrying himself properly
• So that Poe can be steady, confident and relaxed while being attuned to his rider
How do we get there?
There are a number of things we’ll be working on over the next weeks and months, including some of the exercises below:
• Groundwork: pivoting on the hindquarters and on the forehand to ensure he is in tune with a rider/handler’s aids
• Longeing: to help Poe exercise and get the yah-yahs out with no rider on his back; to help build muscle and stamina
• Sidereins: to help Poe carry himself properly and build muscle in the right places while reducing the potential for human error/bad hands
• Speeds within the gaits: to help Poe become responsive to aids, even in high-pressure situations (like when a shadow comes out to eat him)
• Circles: to help Poe get off the inside aids without leaning; to help him become more balanced and supple
Being clear about your intentions will inform your decisions about how you work with your horse. This helps you work smarter, not just harder. If you’re being thoughtful and goal-oriented, you can work on physical and mental fitness in the most efficient way possible, and in turn, working more intentionally will get you where you want to go more quickly and with greater success.
How do you plan your conditioning programs? What are some of your favorite exercises?
Lisa Lach has been riding for 16 years in a variety of disciplines. She currently rides at Lakefield Farm in Grafton, WI, where she competes in the hunter/jumper ring. She blogs about staying centered in the saddle and in life at stayingcentered.wordpress.com.